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During the 18th century, sailors in the Bahamas liked to set anchor in deep, circular patches of dark blue water that they nicknamed “blue holes.” A couple centuries later, scientists discovered that these holes actually mark the entrance to underwater caves. Certified scuba diver and biogeochemist Stephanie Schwabe, founder of the Rob Palmer Blue Holes Foundation based in the Bahamas, thinks the term “blue holes” is in need of an update. She would like to see the caves defined by the processes that form them — something that she’s been studying since she explored her first underwater cave in 1992.
Schwabe began diving after she took a scuba class on a whim while she was an undergraduate student studying geology. But it wasn’t until graduate school that she merged the two passions. Since then, her work has been featured in several television documentaries as well as in a book called Women of Discovery by Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen. Schwabe began her foundation — named for her late husband, an explorer and author who introduced her to underwater caves — to educate people about the caves and encourage their conservation. To help with this latter goal, Schwabe earned a degree in international environmental law in 2003.
Schwabe recently spoke with Geotimes reporter Erin Wayman about her love of underwater caves and what she’s learned over the years.
EW: When did you explore your first underwater cave?
I think what really drove it forward was when I started my graduate degree at Mississippi State. I read a book on my advisor’s shelf called Blue Holes of the Bahamas. It was written by my late husband Robert Palmer. At that point, I didn’t look at the book and think, “Oh, I’m going to marry that guy.” [Laughs]. But I thought that the answers I was looking for in the work that I was doing in the dry caves of San Salvador [in the Bahamas] were in the flooded caves. So, I needed to figure out how to get into them. When I gave a presentation on my master’s work in San Salvador, who should be on the island but Robert Palmer. I set off to meet him and he turned out to be an incredibly charming man. We went caving and he asked me if I wanted to join him on an excursion to Andros Island. Naturally, I said yes. I lied through my teeth when he asked me if I was an experienced cave diver. But I got to see burial sites and a beautiful cave. I fell in love with the blue holes of the Bahamas and my late husband.
EW: From a scientific point of view, why are these caves interesting?
EW: You’ve also written about “black holes.” What are they?
EW: Do you know how underwater caves form?
EW: What’s it like to be in a “blue hole”?